Derived from the Greek word topos meaning “region,” toponymy is simply understood as the taxonomic study of place-names. These may draw on historical or geographical information, as well as etymological information or the history of words.
Generally speaking, we encounter either habitation names or feature names. Habitation names are centred on places that are inhabited such as a village or a town. We can all think of numerous examples of habitation names, like the community where we live. Whereas feature names are tied to a natural or physical feature, say the name of a nearby pond or river. In somewhat more detail, the names may be hydronyms if linked to water, an oronym if a relief feature or finally simply places of natural vegetation growth as in a meadow or grove.
Names are given for myriad reasons. Often, it is espousing a sentiment such as one referring to hope as in the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa. In other instances, the reverse is true. In places such as Mistaken Point Ecological Reserve in Newfoundland and Labrador, the name was intended to warn of the treachorous waters along tne coast. It as a name of foreboding intended to prevent ships from meeting with any misfortune.
Image of edicarian fossils at Mistaken Point Ecological Reserve, NL (Source: Wikipedia).
Sometimes, a place-name may be given in honour of an event, however regrettable. A place-name can often describe a piece of landscape or it may memoriolise some event that occurred there, such as Wounded Knee Creek. This is in honour of the Battle of Wounded Knee in South Dakota of the United States.
How do Place-Names Change?
A place-name will naturally change given shifts in the cultural, political or social context. A natural alteration occurs with a social change. The people who are inhabiting a region may change. Hence, a natural transition often takes place. For instance, a name is given in the language of the dominant groups inhabiting an area.
However, that dominant group may change and this may be accompanied with a name change. Placentia is a good example. When the area was populated with the French, it was known as Plaisance. However, when the English took over, it was then referred to as Placentia.
Image of Cape Spear (Source: Wikipedia).
Through what is known as “phonetic transfer,” a name can sometimes change. Phonetic transfer is simply a situation where individuals will develop a new word based on how it sounds. A good example may be from the eastern Avalon. The original name of the region south of St. John’s known now as Cape Spear was originally Cabo Esperança, in Portuguese. They were one of the first nations to establish their presence in Newfoundland.
The name meant “Cape of Hope,” and likely espoused the feelings of the explorers when they first landed. In later years, for the French, when they arrived, it became Cap d’Espoir, still meaning Cape of Hope in English. But then finally, based simply on phonetics, it became modified to Cape Spear in English. Its original meaning was lost, but phonetically, it was still linked to the original name of “Esperança.”
Another interesting name is the current Bay D’Espoir. One of the ways it is pronounced is actually “Bay Despair” which, in meaning, is a reverse of “D’Espoir.” The one is despair while the latter means hope in French.
We can understand Bay D’Espoir phonetically leading to Bay Despair in an English-speaking mind. However, there’s an interesting twist. It just so happens that on an early map from 1743, the name actually appears as Bay du Desespoir which is in fact the French for “despair” in English. So, it’s up to us to ascertain how the name has been altered.
Many of us can spot the names linked to a particular culture. Be they the names of monarchs, notable individuals or ones touched by religion, the place-names are often granted with respect and honour.
Some communities are named for practical reasons, such as Placentia Junction. It was no doubt a junction on the rail line that ran to Placentia. The meanings would accrue afterwards as people formed a community there.
For the places around Placentia Bay, some are more practical then others. Other place names are brimming with feelings. Regardless, a plenitude of sentiment and meaning helps to forge their place in the memories of inhabitants and their descendants.
Around Placentia Bay
Placentia Bay, in particular, is festooned with a rich concoction of names that touch on the unique characteristics and nuances of place. Together, they bring to life the medley of attributes that have given unique highlights—colour and texture—to this part of Newfoundland and Labrador. I’ll just touch on a few interesting names around the bay.
Some of the names most likely originate with the individuals who first settled the community or other noteworthy community members. Patrick’s Cove, on the eastern shore of Placentia Bay was apparently named in honour of a son born in the community whose name was Patrick. In other locations, such as St. Lawrence, Parker’s Cove on the Burin Peninsula or Arnold’s Cove, also on the eastern shore of Placentia Bay, the individual being honoured has now been lost in time. Nonetheless, the names still help to add the flair of culture to a place.
Argentia is another name with an interesting origin, one that touches on the history of the place. Originally known as Little Placentia, it was taken as the younger sibling of Greater Placentia, a few kilometres away. It spent several centuries using this moniker. It could be perceived as a somewhat self deprecating name and so, it’s not surprising community members sought a change.
So, with the arrival of 1904, the idea was to be recognised in a way that would speak to the unique characteristics of the region. The understood explanation was Father John St. John, the local priest, looked to the silver that had recently been discovered in Little Placentia. Then, using the Latin version, “Argenti,” the name Argentia was born.
However, how the new name developed can potentially have an additional detail. When we consult a map from 1762, we see a bay near Little Placentia named “Argent B.” The “B” is a reference for “Bay.” At the time, the British were in control of Newfoundland following decades of turmoil versus the French who once occupied the region, officially, from 1662 to 1713. It was following the Treaty of Utrecht that Britain was given control of the island of Newfoundland.
This is noteworthy because “Argent” means silver in French. Thus, it was possibly a name that was well known in the community when the French resided there. The name may have been adopted by the English speaking inhabitants who lived in Little Placentia from 1713 to 1904, when the name changed.
Decades later, in the latter part of the nineteenth century, a silver mine was actually established in the area. The mine didn’t meet with any great success. Still, as in the past, silver was clearly regarded as a unique attribute in the region. When choosing the new name of the community, it would’ve been understandable to use this quality.
We can only wonder if “Argent Bay” was still a known quantity and whether that also helped in deciding the new name of what would become Argentia.
A little further south along the Cape Shore, we encounter St. Bride’s. It too has an interesting journey from its original name to the one at present. On a map from 1875 it’s actually labelled as Distress Cove. Apparently, it was found on other maps as La Stress, presumably when the French controlled Placentia. However, a year later, in 1876, a Reverend Charles Irwin is said to have considered the name a far too unpleasant one. Vested with the authority of the church, he bestowed the community with the name it currently possesses, St. Bride’s. It was no doubt in honour of St. Brigit of Kildare, Ireland.
Come By Chance is another name that urges us to learn more of its origin. When the region was being settled by Europeans, Come By Chance was known by another name—Passage Harbour. It was so named by John Guy in 1610 when he led others to settle in what eventually became known as Cupids.
In 1706, a Major Lloyd, an English officer was in the region and actually referred to it as Comby Chance. Comby is a name originating in Devon, one of the places from which fisherman coming to work in Newfoundland often hailed. Other than this information, it is a guessing game for the name Comby. However, given phonetics, it’s easy to see how Comby, over time, would have become Come By Chance.
Mere & Jean or Mer aux Chien?
Another interesting name is from Merasheen Island, located in western Placentia Bay. It’s an interesting name and there are in fact, two explanations for its existence. One relates to settlers, one named “Mere” and the other named “Jean.” Over time, their names apparently merged and became Mereasheen.
Photograph of Merasheen (Source: http://www.placentiabay.ca/pub/Merasheen/HannSummer2007).
An alternative explanation holds that the island was initially known as Mer aux Chiens. This allegedly reflected the fact that around the island was an ocean or “mer” in French of the seadogs or seals. Dogs in French is “chien.”
Either explanation could be true. Both add a whiff of charm to the story of the community’s origin.
Oderin is another island in Placentia Bay that came into being in a common manner. The region was mainly populated by the French initially when that particular power governed. This would be officially from 1662 to 1713, although it is highly likely, some of the French preceded the arrival of the state in this part of the world.
Oderin was one of the communities that must’ve been settled by the French. Their choice for the island’s name was after, Audierne, a town in France. Perhaps some of the settlers hailed from this French community.
Following the Treaty of Utrecht, which ended the War of the Spanish Succession between Britain and France, the British established an outpost on the island. The French inhabitants naturally departed, being replaced by English-speaking ones. Naturally, the name of the island changed for the English-speakers, as the phonetics of the name transformed Audierne into Oderin.
Placentia is believed to have also been named after another community in Europe. The Basque were the first to fish in the region. They came from a place now known as Plentzia in the Basque Country in the north of Spain. However, this community was originally known as Plasencia de Butron which was gradually shortened to simply Plentzia or Plencia. The name Placentia derives from “placere” the Latin for “please” or “pleasant.”
Photograph of Placentia, NL (Source: Tom O’Keefe).
In 1662, when the French took control of Placentia, they renamed the community. The meaning remained that same, but it was translated to Plaisance, meaning “pleasant” in French.
This remained the name of the community, until it was again ravaged by the War of the Spanish Succession. Following the war in 1713, the Treaty of Urecht gave control of Plaisance to the British. In so doing, the name changed yet again. Not veering very far from it’s original meaning, it became Placentia.
For Red Island, we need to take vast strides into the past. In so doing, we arrive at a time when the region was forming, experiencing volcanic eruptions millions of years ago. During what is termed the Acadian Orogeny or mountain building period, various plutons surged to the surface. Plutons are formations of magma that have been thrust through the sedimentary rocks at the surface. When cooled, they form igneous rock.
Photograph of Red Island (Source: Unknown).
One of these plutons formed in Placentia Bay and following millions of years of erosion and weathering, the result has been Red Island. It’s no small achievement. Comprised of granite, an igneous rock, it bestows on Red Island its iconic colour. Pink, along with grey, white and black, are the most common colours of granite. It’s a simple name, although one that reflects a very deep and tumultuous history.
Some Final Thoughts
Learning the name of a place often opens a vast treasure chest of history and story. It’s possible to learn which of the noble citizenry demanded remembrance by virtue of their names being used for some element of the geography.
We’re able to pry open unknown segments of a community’s history simply by virtue of its name. Who was living there and from where did they come? What were the meanings with which they arrived and eventually settled? What were the odd secrets nestled in its past?
Ultimately, we learn more of the place or feature. Whatever the motivation for the name chosen, it eventually becomes a distinctive facet, a taken for granted spirit of place.
Archival Moments 2018 “Looks like a good Christmas on the Cape Shore” http://archivalmoments.ca/tag/distress/
Anonymous 2023 Twelve Mile Circle — An Appreciation of Unusual Places “Placentia is Not a Flat Cake” https://www.howderfamily.com/blog/placentia-not-cake/
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica 2023 “Toponymy” https://www.britannica.com/science/toponymy
Britannica 2023 “Toponymy” https://www.britannica.com/science/toponymy
Wikipedia 2023 “Patrick’s Cove-Angels Cove” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patrick%27s_Cove-Angels_Cove
WorldAtlas 2023 “What is a Toponym?” https://www.worldatlas.com/what-is-a-toponym.html
At the very least, this suggests silver had been discovered in the area centuries before it was discovered again at the end of the nineteenth century.